Published by Halfway Down the Stairs in December 2020
The weather lady predicts a scorcher, unusual for early June. If Lucinda goes now, in the dewy cool, she can pick a flat and be home before it’s too hot. The rest of the news will just be more political yammering and outrage-of-the-day anyway. She finishes her granola, turns the TV off, puts the yogurt in the fridge and goes back to the bedroom to put on a long dirndl skirt and a long-sleeved white blouse.
“And sunscreen, Mom,” Carol insisted when she phoned last night. “I don’t know why you’re picking strawberries anyway. At least take care of yourself.”
“Too late,” she said, “I’m a prune already. And the ‘why’ is because I’m going to make a strawberry-rhubarb pie, which was your father’s absolute favorite. To satisfy you, I’ll find some sunscreen.”
“At least 50 SPF,” Mom.
“All right, dear.”
Both children think she should sell the house and move into the retirement community she and Harold signed up for years ago. “You must be near the top of the waiting list by now,” Carol said. “You should ask.” Those two are unsentimental about the house and traditions they grew up in. Last Labor Day she told Robert, in his weekly call, about going out to Farm Valley for an armful of cornstalks to tie around the mailbox post.
He didn’t get it. “Mom, you’ll kill yourself if you keep doing all Dad’s old chores and your own too. You’ll be seventy years old next year, for God’s sake.”
“You needn’t take the Lord’s name in vain,” she told him. “It’s decorative, and cheers me.” When a month later she bought a huge pumpkin and carved it into a gap-toothed smiling face almost as good as Harold used to make, she didn’t mention it to either of them.
The sunscreen in the bathroom cabinet says 35 SPF, whatever that means. Good enough: She daubs it on her face and the back of her hands, rubbing it in until it disappears, puts on a touch of lipstick and completes her outfit with a floppy straw hat wide enough to hide her grey hair and keep most of her shoulders in shadow. She locks up, backs the Corolla out of the garage and sets out, a half-hour drive. There are few others on the road this early on a Saturday.
Pickens’ Patch was the first farm to set aside a few rows that people could harvest themselves; it’s been her destination since the first years of their marriage, when the saving made a difference. A dozen farms sprawl along a little river that meanders toward the Connecticut, their soil annually replenished by springtime flooding. In those days, all save Mr. Pickens relied wholly on dark-skinned migratory workers from the Caribbean who could work all day, oblivious to the heat. There weren’t many customers like her.
But she was in a vanguard. Others discovered the joy of returning to the soil, recapturing for a morning the self-sufficiency of an earlier era. Soon there were a half-dozen cars in the dirt parking lot whenever she arrived, often a shiny Cadillac or Lincoln whose owner had obviously came to commune with agrarian forebears rather than to save a few dollars.
Harold, who grew up in New York City and only reluctantly let her buy him bluejeans and a flannel work shirt, came picking only the first year. Stoop labor wasn’t his idea of recreation, he said. His contribution to the seasonal pie from then on was to cultivate a patch of rhubarb in a sunny spot in the back yard.
He did that with a will, though. Every fall he came to a dairy farm out here carrying faded burlap bags, and brought them back bulging with cow manure to heap around each plant. “Like a blanket,” he said, “to nourish the roots during their winter sleep.” Last fall she had to have the farmer fill the bags only halfway so she could manage the weight, and she understood why he always took a long shower after that chore.
When the children were old enough she took them along, teaching them to pluck only the red-ripe berries, using both hands so as not to tear the vines, leaving the green fruit for others. She let them eat a few as they worked; the crimson juice stained their chins as they grinned their delight.
When she and the children got back with their flats of strawberries, Harold greeted them with an armload of rhubarb stalks. He would praise the resulting pies, always saving one slice for the next morning, claiming pie for breakfast as a New England tradition. Admiration for his geometric skill in slicing one more piece than the number at the table became a family joke.
In their teens, both children balked at this pilgrimage. Their only participation now, apart from Robert’s supplying personalized labels from his computer, is to accept with dutiful filial enthusiasm a few jars of jam when the family gathers for Christmas.
She wishes she could bring the grands along, introduce them to the satisfactions of the soil, but they’re half a continent away. That’s probably why she took such pleasure in doling out candy bars to kids last Halloween. Their house had long been a magnet, because Harold greeted them wearing a different rubber monster mask every year, taking it off with a reassuring smile if a very young child was more frightened than startled. She used one of his masks last fall, wearing his topcoat over her apron. Although the kids loved it as they always had, she grew so tired that she had to turn out the lights and let the last doorbells go unanswered.
Nearing the farm, she sees a new condominium rising out of the field next door, shouldering above mini-mansions already built nearby. She feels vindicated: If Farmer Pickens can resist selling to developers and retiring, the least she can do is give him some business.
Several cars are already in the lot, people out in the rows. Although the sun has burned off the morning mist, the heat isn’t oppressive yet. She checks in and accepts a cardboard flat, glad to be recognized as a long-timer—”Morning, Mrs. Peters; nice to have you back”—and is directed to an untouched row.
Picking strawberries properly is awkward work. Years ago, vacationing in The Netherlands, she and Harold saw a Van Gogh pen-and-ink of a buxom farmwife in a full-length baggy skirt, bent in half at the waist to harvest beets, ample buttocks almost mooning a brassy sky. “Looks like you, picking strawberries,” he joked. He’d seen her only that first year, and she was half that woman’s weight. Still, he bought a print that hangs to this day in the bedroom. She remembers Van Gogh’s peasant whenever she comes picking; it pleases her to be part of a centuries-old tradition, reaping what the land produces.
A few customers, wearing jeans more faded than Harold’s ever became, sit between the rows, skootching backward, picking berries from left and right into a flat between their legs. They’d better have brought newspapers to sit on when they get back in their cars, and will surely have to wash the jeans when they get home. She’s proud still to be able to stand and stoop, the time-honored posture.
This year’s is a bountiful crop. Some fields, the weather lady said, were waterlogged by a wet spring. Mr. Pickens’ land is well-drained, so the extra moisture made his berries plumper and juicier, big enough that it takes only a half-hour to fill her flat. Just as well: As the day warms, she begins to feel her age, as she did last winter when she tried to take on Harold’s snow-shoveling.
She takes her flat back to the stand. A pleasant young woman, perhaps a Pickens daughter, puts it on the scale. “Eight pounds, Mrs. Peters. That will be $9.20.” Imagine, little more than a dollar a pound for such extravagantly perfect berries! On the way home she stops at the supermarket for sugar, pectin and—yielding to temptation—a carton of thick cream. She glances at the not-yet-ripe berries in the produce section, grown heaven only knows where, $2.85 for a box that couldn’t possibly be a pound. The comparison makes her feel virtuous.
At home, she brings the flat into the kitchen and goes into the back yard for a generous armful of rhubarb, slicing off the elephant-ear leaves with a flick of the kitchen knife almost as cleanly as Harold did, carefully laying them down to mulch the plants and suppress weeds. She decides against a shower; enough to strip off her sweaty clothes, towel briskly and put on shorts and a cool halter. She glances in the mirror—sagging breasts, but not bad for a woman her age—and goes back to the kitchen.
It is daunting; she should have stopped with a half-flat. Pouring a glass of ice water, she sits for a moment. There are times one especially wishes for company. If Betty from church were here, she’d tell her that except for lard — which no one uses nowadays — her pie crust recipe came from Harold’s mother, who indulgently encouraged his pie-for-breakfast routine.
She knows the recipe by heart, and soon has the ingredients combined into a huge bowlful of dough that she rolls out into six sheets. Two for a twelve-inch pie, Harold’s’ favorite, the others for ten-inchers. She discovered when she made mince pies to take to St. Louis for Christmas with Robert’s family that only the smaller ones would fit into her new pie basket.
“Mom, you didn’t need to do that,” Robert protested when he met her at the airport.
“Tradition, Robert,” she retorted. “Strawberry-rhubarb in June, mince in December. If I didn’t have my own kitchen, I couldn’t do it.”
“They have a do-it-yourself kitchen at Sunset Village,” he said. “Just like the woodworking shop and the sewing room.” That conversation deteriorated into a bit of an argument: What would she do if she had a blizzard and lost power, with no one to help her?
“Don’t invent problems,” she told him, and changed the topic.
A week after she got back from St. Louis there’d been a big snow, and she did lose power for two days, which meant the thermostat didn’t work so neither did the furnace. Harold, who knew how to bypass the thermostat, had never taught her, so she made do by getting out the down comforter, sleeping on the living room sofa and keeping the fireplace blazing with the wood Harold had stored in the garage last July, just before his death.
She slips sheets of dough into the pans, layers the top sheets onto waxed paper and puts it all into the fridge to chill. She cuts the rhubarb into inch-long chunks, adds sugar, covers the plastic bowl and partially pre-cooks it in the microwave. That gives her time for another break, and a sandwich of peanut butter with sliced strawberries on toasted whole-grain bread.
Robert, as a teen-ager, used to call that combination weird. She smiles: In his phone call last week he confessed introducing his kids to peanut-butter-and-strawberries, and they loved it.
Thank goodness the phone line hadn’t gone down in that snowstorm, or sweet Robert might have tried to fly back to rescue her. When he called, she lied about the power, and certainly didn’t tell him she had almost used up the firewood.
“Are you snowed in?” he’d asked. “If you had a heart attack like Dad, could an ambulance even get to you?”
“There are teen-agers eager to make some money,” she told him. “I think I see them coming down the street now.”
The ambulance hadn’t done his father any good, she almost said, but bit her tongue. Massive is massive. When they’d kept him living in a spaghetti-tangle of tubes and blinking monitors for three days with no hint of recovery, she insisted they read his living will and pull the plug. She and Harold had long ago agreed to do that for each other if the time came. Sometime soon she must have that conversation with Robert and Carol.
“Don’t be morbid, Lucinda,” she said aloud. “You’re healthy as a horse. Let’s finish the pies.” She finds talking to herself unsettling, and turns on public radio’s classical music as she starts back to work.
She deftly dispatches the strawberry stems with the heel of her French knife, which hasn’t yet lost the edge Harold gave it from time to time, and goes on to quarter the berries — not too small; the pie wants a little chunkiness — and mix all the fruit in her biggest bowl, adding a bit more sugar. She preheats the oven while she gets out the chilled pie tins, heaps each with a gentle mound of fruit, flops a circle of crust on each and crimps the edges with a salad fork.
There was a time when she pricked a fancy pattern into each: Bon Appetit or For Harold. Today she pricks just enough to release the steam, adds an immodest L.P. in the center, and puts them into the oven. There are still lots of strawberries; she makes room in the fridge for the flat. Tomorrow she’ll go on to jam. For now she takes out a bowlful of very plump berries, slathers them in cream and sits down at the kitchen table.
There are new neighbors a few doors down the block; she’ll take them a pie as a welcome present. The second will go to the church social Sunday. The big one is for Harold.
Her original thought had been to take the whole pie out to his grave, in lieu of the flowers she’s been bringing. There are enough homeless men around that it probably wouldn’t go to waste. The image of hungry men scarfing down Harold’s pie is unsettling, though. And left untouched, it would draw colonies of ants to the gravesite. An even more disturbing image.
No, she’ll take a big slice out in the morning and eat it there herself, sharing the memories of pie for breakfast, communing.
“Nice,” he’ll say silently. “I can almost taste it myself. And what will you do the rest of the morning?”
“I have to get back to make jam,” she’ll say. “On the way I’d thought to stop by Sunset Village. See how close I am to the top of the waiting list. I’ve burned up all the firewood you left.”
“It’s not just that, is it?” Harold will say silently. “You’re lonely. Busy, but lonely.”
“Yes,” she will say aloud. “Yes. But there will always be time for strawberry-rhubarb pie in June.”